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Uzbekistan: Central Asia Faces Terrorism Threat

This is the second of two features on the trial which ended this week in Tashkent following the February bombings in the Uzbek capital. This feature focuses on what the trial may have revealed about the threat from terrorism in Central Asia.

Prague, 2 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The trial in Uzbekistan of 22 men accused of taking part in bombings in Tashkent early this year ended this week with all suspects found guilty. The court proceedings seemed to provide clear signs that Central Asia may face a significant challenge from terrorism.

The February bombings, which killed 16 people and injured 100 others, initially shocked ordinary Uzbeks because security in their country is considered to be very tight. Many have long believed no one could mount a serious challenge to the government.

Now, in light of the testimony provided by the men convicted this week, Uzbekistan's citizens and the authorities alike are wondering just how deep the terrorism problem runs and how much it might still grow in the future.

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov seemed to express some of that concern in remarks following the announcement of the guilty verdicts. Six of the 22 suspects were condemned to death. The others received lengthy prison sentences. Islam Karimov spoke at a press conference in the town of Andijan earlier this week.

"I can imagine the reaction of parents and relatives of the victims of the terrorist blasts. I am very sorry and I want to say to my people today -- 'Be Careful!' I think we have enough strength to prevent these things from happening. Why were we so inattentive? How come we did not know these people were invading our country? My dear friends, dear children, I want to repeat once more -- be careful in the future!"

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, criticized aspects of the trial. Suspicions were expressed that some confessions by defendants may have been coerced. But the testimony given by the 22 suspects to Uzbekistan's Supreme Court still suggests that not only Uzbekistan, but the entire region, may face a security threat from Islamic fundamentalist-led militants.

Nearly all of the defendants said they first fell under the influence of a local Islamic religious figure, usually a reader of the Koran, or Qori, at a local mosque. The testimony of one of the defendants -- Rustam Mamatkulov -- provided a rare insight into how well the militants may be organized.

Mamatkulov, who testified on June 7, had faced a request for the death penalty from state prosecutors but received 20 years in jail instead in light of his cooperation with investigators.

Mamatkulov told the court that he became interested in religion in 1994. He said he went to Turkey where he met Takhir Yuldash, one of two men the Uzbek government claims planned the February bombings.

The defendant also said that he traveled, in Yuldash's service, to Azerbaijan, to Chechnya, to the Turkish-controlled north of Cyprus, to Iran and to the United Arab Emirates. He said he sometimes brought religious literature, Islamic video cassettes and U.S. dollars to the Kazakh city of Almaty.

He testified that he often went to Turkey to get money from Yuldash and from Mohammed Solih, the leader-in-exile of the banned Uzbek political party Erk. Solih is the second man Uzbek authorities say planned the attacks. Both he and Yuldash have denied any role. Mamatkulov said that he delivered the money to Juma Namangani, long considered by Tashkent to be Uzbekistan's public enemy number one. Namangani has spent a good deal of time in Afghanistan and is apparently no stranger to the Taliban.

Since 1997, Tashkent has accused Namangani's groups of carrying out violent attacks on government targets within Uzbekistan -- the first by Islamic militants there. Several policemen were killed, allegedly by Namangani's group, in late 1997 in the city from which he derives his pseudonym - Namangan.

Mamatkulov testified that Namangani told him about plans for the February bombings. He also said that after being informed of the plans, he returned to Turkey to meet with Solih and he was later arrested there by Interpol after the Tashkent bombings.

The case of another defendant in the trial provided a similar picture of the workings of militant groups. The defendant, Zokhid Dekhanov, received the death penalty for his part in the bombings.

Dekhanov said he trained with Yuldash' forces in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz Province and that he used violence to get money to help fund the bombings.

Defendant Sharif Shirzoda said that Yuldash arranged for him to train in a special camp in Chechnya. He said that during the February bombings he was responsible for setting explosives on Mustakkilik Maidoni, the location of the government building in Tashkent.

Kozimbek Zokirov, who received the death sentence, said he was in constant contact with Yuldash. Zokhirov said his job was to recruit young men and send them for training at special camps in Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Others among the men on trial spoke of meetings in southern Kazakhstan and in Kazakhstan's northern city of Pavlodar, not far from Russian Siberia. Suspects in the February bombings were caught and sent back to Uzbekistan from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. In Uzbekistan, suspects were found in every corner of the country, from Khiva in the west to the Uzbek cities of the Fergana Valley in the east.

Meanwhile, suspected ringleader Yuldash is believed by Uzbek authorities to be safely in Afghanistan. Solih is believed to be somewhere in Europe.

The court's detailing of what appears to be a widespread terrorism network in Central Asia has raised some doubts among human rights groups observing the trial. They say that the testimony given by witnesses months after their arrest almost entirely supported the surmises made by the police just days after the bombings.

But for the Uzbek government and the secular governments of neighboring states it may not matter if what was said in June in the Tashkent courtroom is 100 percent the truth. They are more likely to pay attention to the larger patterns in the testimony and those seem to show at the very least that Islamic extremists move freely through their countries and are established throughout the region.

The only country excluded in the extremist's operations seems to have been Turkmenistan, which was never mentioned during the trial.

More worryingly for the region's governments, the suspected ringleaders remain out of reach. At the same time, members of their groups seem to be well-funded.

The trials against the suspects in the Tashkent bombings are not over. Dozens of suspects still await trial and at least two more rounds of court proceedings are expected in the coming months.

The testimony of defendants at this latest trial suggests that Central Asia's security problems may be far from over, too.

(Zamira Echanova and Yaqub Turan from the Uzbek Service contributed to this feature.)